Thursday 2 February 2012

A female Parrot Crossbill at Blackdown NT West Sussex 02 February 2012

A female Parrot Crossbill had been found a few days earlier at Blackdown NT on the borders of Surrey and Sussex and was attracting much attention as there were some who said it was one and others who were coming up with all manner of identification reasons as to why it was something else such as an Eastern Common Crossbill, a Scottish Parrot Crossbill or even an aberrant Common Crossbill.

Well, only one person really, was disputing the identification and like Voldemort he should and shall remain nameless. Expelliamus! I had already tried to see the bird on the previous Tuesday but failed, missing it annoyingly by thirty minutes or so. Consultation of the sighting times demonstrated to me that it would be best to get there at first light and wait, as it appeared to be only seen once a day in the early to mid morning when it came to drink at a particular pool on a particular ridge.

And so it was that lo! as the following Thursday dawned, Badger, myself and Paul traversed Basingstoke in the rush hour. Blackdown is not the easiest of places to get to or even find but my previous abortive trip had at least yielded one positive result. I now knew the way! A beautiful sunrise heralded the fact that it was seriously minus something or other outside and with a wind blowing directly from Siberia it was going to be minus something or other cubed when we had to leave the snugness of the Audi.

Our arrival in the Car Park was achieved without incident and we proceeded to don every possible item of clothing we possessed in preparation for our epic stand against the forces of nature and Siberia in particular. It was alright whilst we kept moving but eventually at the designated spot it was time to stand still and just wait. Blackdown is the highest point in West Sussex and it was minus five degrees celsius when we got out of the car. Even more with the wind chill factor. The wind blew and my fingers started to feel very, very cold. My face had no feeling whatsoever and that small part of my nose that was exposed to the elements rapidly froze along with the drips coming from it. It was however a glorious day, sunny but unbelievably cold. I warmed myself up by trying with my feet to smash the ice on the pool in order that the Crossbills would not be deterred from coming down to drink

Then it was just an attritional wait occasionally enlivened by various jolly, middle class ladies in lurid clothing walking or running with their dogs. Some were in lycra but shouldn’t have been. The ladies that is. We stood and scoped a few Common Crossbills that arrived to perch in the trees around the pool. Loathe to move too much in case a slight gap in my clothing might let in the arctic air I moved slowly like a giant gherkin, green, knobbly and fat around the middle from all the clothing. Warily the Common Crossbills eventually descended to drink but they did not include the desired Parrot Crossbill. The male Common Crossbills however were really lovely in their resplendent scarlet plumage and seemed impervious to the cold as they sang and displayed to the females. If nothing else it was a glorious opportunity to get close up and personal with a species which normally is only seen fleetingly. I gladly took the opportunity. A birder arrived and for some unknown reason announced to no one in particular that the Parrot Crossbill would arrive at 9.15. 

He was quite definite about this but steadfastly ignored by one and all. Then after a wait some more Common Crossbills arrived, perching on a lone conifer. The birder again announced that the Parrot Crossbill would arrive at 9.15. His pariah status was confirmed as he was ignored yet again. The minutes passed as we looked at Common Crossbills messing about in the silver birches around the pool.

Then to the left, at 9.15, as some more Common Crossbills arrived I located a single female Crossbill on its own, isolated against the blue sky in one of the birches. It was clearly visible, unobstructed by any twigs and just sat there. There was something about it. Having now spent some considerable time watching Common Crossbills it looked, well, different but only very subtly. It looked to be stockier and marginally larger with a thick neck and large head. For what seemed ages it just sat head on to me but eventually it turned its head sideways. The beak was definitely larger with the familiar bulging lower mandible. Surely this was it? The beak was so much bigger than usual but still I was not absolutely sure. This was after all a first ever for me. Eventually I said to Paul who was also, unknown to me, looking at it. “That’s it isn’t it? The bird on its own on the left in that birch.” Independently he thought so too. So we announced the fact to one and all which we came to regret as no sooner had we said this than we then had to endure an inordinate amount of time trying to direct one particular birder on to it. It moved around so no sooner had we directed him to it than the process had to start all over again. Let’s face facts now - it had been a very early start, it was bloody cold, I had the remains of a really nasty cold virus which had kept me awake coughing most of the previous night and I was not in the best of moods. Comments such as “Can you get me on to it? Is it in that bare tree?” did not help matters - all the trees were bare apart from the conifers we were not looking at. It was mid winter after all. I did my best but it was hopeless. After more directions during which the bird flew off I was assailed with “Which bare tree was it in? Was it the one over there?” Gritted teeth. ‘There are several bare trees, in fact there are three groups of bare trees, can you tell me which do you mean?’ “The one on the right, no sorry the one on the left”.‘Yes it was in there’ “Whereabouts? Was it halfway up? Was it the bird fourteenth from the right on the edge of that three inch twig slightly above the bent branch in that bare tree second from the left?” ‘If you want it to be, then - Yes!!!!’ “Thanks, then I think I saw it”. If you don’t know what to look for then why are you here? This nonsense went on and eventually I tuned out and just ignored the requests.

The Parrot Crossbill spent its time with the other Common Crossbills just fiddling about in the birches and flying around with the flock of twenty or so Common Crossbills. Occasionally it would descend to drink and then would be back up into the trees. It posed a real identification test each time it had to be relocated as it was not as distinctive as one would think unless seen in profile side on when the relatively enormous lower mandible was quite obvious. There were other subtle differences from its commoner cousins such as it’s slightly, to me anyway, heavier build, larger, squarer head and thick neck. It just looked stockier than its fellows.

After about twenty minutes the flock moved a hundred metres or so to some other birches. I went over and after some time finally located it perched quite close and it remained here giving the best views that I was to achieve. It was very close in the scope and the head and neck especially seemed very grey. I watched it in comparative peace. The rest of the birders duly came over to where we were standing and normal service was resumed with more inane questions. A man with a camera sidled up to me “Can you see it”. ‘Yes’ “Where?” ‘There by the trunk of that silver birch’. “I can’t get onto it”. ‘Just follow the trunk up until you get to the bit in the sun and its sitting there’. “No I can’t see it.” ‘It’s there right in front of you. You can see it with your naked eyes’. “No. Which tree is it?” Fortunately I was then dissuaded from grievous bodily harm by two dogs attempting the same on each other uncomfortably close to my legs. The owners needless to say were unapologetic announcing that it was nothing - they do this all the time. Really? The man with the camera then asked me to look at his picture of the Parrot Crossbill. He was uncertain if he had photographed the right bird!

We must have watched the Parrot Crossbill for an hour or so and then slowly the whole flock departed in pairs or threes presumably to feed elsewhere. So another successful twitch came to its end. While the bird was present we forgot about the cold but once the bird had flown it was another story. Back in the car at 11 am. The temperature? Minus 3 degrees Celsius!

Common Crossbill

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